Home Tech Tips from a Disaster Survivor
One year ago today, super-storm Sandy hit the east coast of the USA devastating many of the well know waterfront areas of New York and New Jersey. My home was unfortunately one of the many destroyed in the storm. Now that we are finally back in our home, I’ve been doing a bit of reflecting on the challenges we’ve faced this past year and that we still face to this day. Technology has helped us through some of these difficulties so I put together this blog to share some of the things we used, wish we had, needed last minute, before, during and after the storm.
DISCLAIMER: Now, I’m no expert in disaster preparedness. If you need advice on that, FEMA has this nifty website, http://www.ready.gov/ that shares all the steps for being prepared. One thing is for certain, they did forget that in our ever-connected world, home IT preparedness is a necessity and no longer a “nice-to-have”. In a disaster, it’s probably the last thing you’re thinking about but for a geek like me, it was on the top of my list.
Think about what would happen to your pictures, files, home videos, bill payments, etc. if your house was flooded? caught fire? the roof blew off? lost electricity for weeks? Folks tell me that things can be replaced, but the digital pictures and videos of my kids and my bills spreadsheet and all my financial paperwork cannot be replaced. There are things I did do right before the storm, things I didn’t. Here’s what I suggest you consider if you want to be “tech prepared” for a disaster like super-storm Sandy:
Before the Storm:
- Back it up! Your data/pictures/whatnot should be backed up into 2 other storage areas other than your computer or mobile device. My simple suggestion:
- Use an external hard drive as a primary backup: The key here is the external hard drive is something you can grab and walk away with when/if you need to evacuate your house. Some cheap suggestions: Buy a USB External Hard Drive for between $50 and $100. Use the free software on your computer to create an regular backup – like the TimeMachine on your MAC or “System Image” function on your PC. There are also programs sold to do this work for you like Symantec’s Backup Exec or Dropbox. Some hard drives come with software as well – check out this CNet review for some good suggestions.
- Use a cloud storage site as a secondary backup (back up at least 1x per week) – there are tons of options here; find one that works well with your computer and your mobile devices. Most of these services have free periods or an amount of data for free – use this to test them out and pick one that works for you. Here are a few suggestions: CrashPlan, Carbonite, Mozy, Dropbox
- Scan and Store Important Documents Where are your insurance papers? your birth certificates? your important phone numbers? your bank account numbers? Right before the storm, I was shuffling through papers and packing them in plastic bags (a sight to be seen I tell you). If I was prepared, I would have already scanned these items into my computer, stored them in a secured cloud and on my backup drive and simply carried everything out with me in one hand.
- Inventory your Stuff You not only have to know where your digital assets are, but more importantly, inventory your physical assets. Take pictures of all the items in your home – down to the picture frames and coasters! No one will believe that you had things unless you have receipts for them. If you have receipts – see #2 above. If not, take a picture and inventory it so that you know what you have now and are not struggling to remember after the disaster strikes. This includes big items like appliances, furniture, counter-tops and cabinets as well as small items like your world-renowned shot glass collection. Include the items in your garage, shed, basement, yard, etc. Video is also good but can’t be faxed to the insurance folks so try for pictures first.
- Pay your Bills and Take out Cash If you still pay bills manually via check, get it done before the storm. If you pay online and it’s not auto-pay, do it ASAP or schedule it out for at least the next month so that you don’t have to worry about the bills during and after the storm. This is a simple one but write down your checking balance somewhere so you know what’s in there and what’s coming out – just in case you need to write an emergency check to some random oil clean up company or an antiquated truck rental firm that has the only rental left in your area. (Not saying I had this issue, not saying I didn’t.) Keep your checkbook handy my technical friends… they still exist and are a great backup when things get tough. Also, take out some cash in case none of the credit card machines work and you need to buy gas for your car after waiting on a line for 4 hours at the gas station and you find out that they aren’t taking credit cards.
- Get Power Charge your devices to their full capacity before the power goes out. Fill your gas tank in your car (days before if you can) and make sure you have a car charger for your devices. Buy an extra battery backup for your smart phone, tablet or other internet connected device.
- Get Service Internet service from our local cable company was down for weeks in our area after super-storm Sandy. However, we had an AT&T 4G mobile hotspot that we used to get online since mobile service was working. I suggest you find a few ways to get online in an emergency. Here are some options:
- Regular Internet Service (cable, fiber-optic, etc) – During the storm, my parents had 15 people squatting in their home (all displaced family and friends). They were one of the few houses in the area that had both power and internet up and running for most of the storm and aftermath. The problem? No one knew the darn wifi password! Maybe your internet service at home doesn’t go down or a friend may have access to service and you do not. Know your wifi password so that if someone else needs help to get online and you do have service, you can easily get them online without giving them full access to your computer.
- Public HotSpots – Wireless from a local public hot spot can be a godsend in a disaster. Lots of these businesses have backups and will continue running service to help folks out during and after a storm. Well-known locations are Starbucks, Panera Bread, Barnes and Noble book stores, McDonalds, your local train station and public library. I found this website to be very helpful when trying to find an public hotspot: http://www.openwifispots.com/
- Mobile HotSpot – 3G or 4G devices such as your connected smart phone, tablet or an external device like the one we had are a great backup for internet access. We used this for 4 months as we didn’t have cable in the location we were living.
- Work – If you work for a large company, they are likely to have internet service in a disaster due to their necessary disaster recovery plans. Don’t forget that their T1 connection is likely to be up and running even though your house lost power/internet. Of course you need to follow your company’s policy on internet use for personal reasons. My company offered families a place to sleep, eat, shower and use the internet during and after the storm.
- Do it now! – Don’t wait for a storm to come – backup your stuff now and test out how you would recover from a disaster should everything go kaput. Share this blog with your friends… be prepared!!!
During the Storm:
During super-storm Sandy my cell service didn’t flake out much. There were definite dead zones in the most inopportune areas. For example, we couldn’t use the phone anywhere near my parents house where we were staying for two weeks despite the fact that they lived on the only block in the area that had power. Instead, my husband and I would drive about a mile inland to a supermarket parking lot to use our phones and connect online. At times, when driving was dangerous, we simply remained [gasp] offline. I know this is difficult and we wish we had some sort of transistor radio to listen to what was happening during the worst part of the storm. They’re cheap too! Just $10-$15 and you’re able to hear what is happening when all else fails. This site seems to go a bit overboard with their disaster preparedness kits, but their transistor radio is a cheap option for you – http://www.homefrontemergency.com/amtrraw.html
After the Storm:
Now, unless there is a total apocalypse, or a zombie takeover, the “Internet” will still be around when things settle down and you’ll probably be asked to send people stuff via email, fax or read things out over the phone. Here are a few things you’re going to need to do:
- Get a Scanner/Printer/Fax machine ASAP If you were affected by the storm – lost your house, your car, or something else, you are going to gather a ton of paperwork, be asked to send folks a ton of paperwork and you could probably bury yourself in paperwork that is not at all useful. My suggestion is to scan everything. Scan all your files as you get them in including bills, receipts, any paperwork sent to you. Organize them as best you can so that when someone asks for something specific, you can do a quick search for it on your computer instead of attempting to rifle through mounds of confusing papers. The printer and fax machine are necessary too. Your insurance company, FEMA, Mortgage company are living in the 80’s with fax machines instead of email. They’ll want to fax you documents and then ask you to fill them out, sign them and fax them back. Fax services are expensive and they’ll want you to send hundreds of pages. Imagine paying $100 just to send your insurance company info that you’ve already sent 3 times. It gets expensive – just buy a multipurpose machine to get the job done once and for all.
- Take lots of pictures of damaged items or property Leave no item un-photographed! Insurance companies love to downplay your loss and this could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars that you will have to pay out of pocket (I’m not kidding). Make sure you photograph anything that you throw away and include serial numbers so that the price of items can be identified at a later date.
- Put things in the Cloud Make your files accessible from anywhere. You’ll never know when you need a phone number, id/account number, persons name, receipt, picture and so on. My suggestion is to use a free online service like Dropbox to hold your “stuff”. This allows you and others that you authorize to access your information from almost anywhere. I can’t even count the times I was at work and needed a file to send to someone (insurance, mortgage company, FEMA, LIPA) and didn’t have it in my great big folder of files. Finally when I decided to put everything on Dropbox, this became a non-issue – and I stopped lugging around a 50lb bag everywhere I went (my back thanked me).
So that’s that. Everything I can remember about being prepared for and dealing with the aftermath of a storm/disaster from a home tech perspective. I hope this blog helps others that are looking to prepare or even helps those that have to go thought the mess we went through this past year.
If you have any additions to this list, let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for additional info or better ways to get things done. If you’re going through this mess now and need some support, reach out as well. Us disaster survivors have an uncanny ability to remember everything we went through and give some great advice to others.
Best of luck to you all.